Foodservice Equipment Reports

SPECIAL REPORT: Reachin’ For Coolsville

When we last wrote about refrigeration (time flies…), we offered a futuristic look at what reach-in refrigerators might look like in a few years. A lot of those prognostications have come true. While we haven’t seen scroll compressors on boxes this small, we have seen scroll-type evaporator fans, EC fan motors, electronic controls and other new features that have made reach-ins more energy efficient, reliant and easier to control.

These days it seems like practically every equipment manufacturer in the business is making reach-ins. They’re so ubiquitous you may think there’s little difference among them except price. After all, every one of them keeps food cold. To meet NSF/ANSI Standard 7, and meet most local health codes, they must hold food at or below 41°F.

But along with the myriad permutations of size, number of doors, solid or glass front and a host of other features are subtle differences that can make one model a great fit for your application and another less than optimal. How can you tell what to look for and where to use it? Glad you asked.

The range of reach-ins available gives you four basic levels to choose from—economy, value, mid-range and high-end spec lines. Depending on your application, a basic box might suit you just fine. Performance-wise, mid-range models typically provide everything you could want, but in some instances only a top-line model will do.

Let’s discuss what differentiates one level from another, and why you may want some features, but not care about others.

Maintaining Your Cool

Reach-ins, as you know, store cold foods at proper temperatures, between 33°F and 41°F. Refrigerators aren’t designed to chill foods rapidly. Invariably, people will put food in a reach-in that hasn’t been chilled. And, of course, because employees put food in and take food out, reach-ins have to compensate for the loss of cold air and/or introduction of warm air into the box.

How quickly they can accomplish this depends on the type of refrigeration system they employ. The biggest difference among refrigerators in terms of performance is between capillary tube refrigeration systems and expansion valve systems.

Capillary tube systems use a long, narrow tube between the condenser and evaporator as a kind of throttle to handle changes in refrigerant temperature and pressure. They’re designed for fairly constant temperature demands inside a reach-in. While they can handle normal loads and gradual shifts in temperature, they can’t respond quickly.

Because capillary tube systems are relatively inexpensive, they’re more commonly found on economy and value reach-in models. Models manufactured with capillary systems are very energy efficient when not used in high-demand environments. They’re best suited to longer-term food-storage applications where they’re accessed infrequently.

Some manufacturers say oversized evaporator coils coupled and balanced with a more powerful compressor and larger condenser allows their capillary tube reach-ins to compensate for wider temperature shifts.

But for higher demand environments, in which employees or customers are in and out of the reach-in frequently or inadequately chilled foods are put inside to cool, expansion valve systems respond more quickly and with more cooling power than capillary systems. Expansion valves handle shifts in refrigerant temperature and pressure more effectively and provide a larger reservoir for excess refrigerant than capillary tubes.

Condensate Considerations

Condensate forms when the refrigeration system pulls humidity out of the box. Different makes handle the liquid in different ways. Reach-in models with expansion valves discharge hot gas refrigerant through the evaporator coil as part of the defrost cycle, evaporating condensate that may have formed on the coil.

Options on capillary tube systems vary depending on manufacturer and model. One is a wick that soaks up excess moisture dripping off of the coil into the bottom of the reach-in. The moisture in the wick then slowly evaporates. This option may not work as well in high-humidity environments or in high-volume operations that put excess load on the unit. If you’re storing meat and produce, the condensate will be acidic; excess could slowly corrode both the interior of the box and, more importantly, refrigeration-system parts such as the coil. Manufacturers typically coat coils with epoxy or plastic to resist corrosion, but over time, the coils can be compromised.

Another, more expensive, option is to utilize an electric heater pan at the bottom of the reach-in. Condensate drips down into the pan, and the heater evaporates it. This option uses more energy, but the trade-off might be worth the cost in warm, moist climates or high-volume applications.

Finally, some models offer a bottom drain for excess condensate. This option makes sense as long as your reach-in is parked over a floor drain.

Payload Factors

Manufacturers design reach-ins with top- and bottom-mounted refrigeration units. Several make both types depending on the model. More often than not, models with bottom-mounted refrigeration use capillary tube systems, so if you need a reach-in with faster response to high-volume use you may not have much choice.

Makers of bottom-mounted models say air near the floor is cooler and cleaner, so their units operate more efficiently. Then again, heat thrown off by their compressor motors and condensers will rise around the units, potentially making them work harder to keep food cold.

Manufacturers of top-mounted models claim air circulation is much better at the top of a reach-in, so their units operate more efficiently. Certainly, having the heat thrown off by the refrigeration system up higher where kitchen air will be vented through the exhaust hood can be a plus. But if the reach-in is next to a bank of cooking equipment such as fryers or around a baking area with flour in the air, a top-mounted unit may get dirtier faster and run more inefficiently than a bottom-mounted unit.

Some makers claim top-mounted refrigeration units also are easier to clean and service than bottom-mounted models. However, some bottom-mounted models include a slide-out refrigeration unit. An advantage to bottom-mounted units is the storage space they create on top of the reach-ins.

Another factor to take into consideration is interior capacity. Bottom-mounted models feature an evaporator coil positioned inside the cabinet, taking up valuable storage space. Look at a reach-in’s value in terms of cost per cubic foot of storage capacity rather than its overall price tag to compare actual costs of top-mounted and bottom-mounted models.

In addition to potentially taking up space, putting the evaporator coil inside the reach-in also means the air blowing across the coil may dip below freezing, potentially damaging food placed too close to it.

Check how interior dimensions measure out, too. Some models have room for full-size sheet pans while others don’t. At least one or two manufacturers make narrow-profile reach-ins for smaller kitchens and/or tighter spots. Again, check dimensions and interior capacity to make sure your pick suits what you’re storing.

Materials And Finishes

What you store in your reach-in, as well as where you place it in your facility, can help you determine the type of materials and construction you should spec. Most models are built on the same heavy-duty frame, but interior and exterior materials vary.

Exterior. As with any commercial kitchen equipment, the more stainless used in the construction of a reach-in the more durable—and expensive, of course—it will be. Stainless also provides a high-end look for reach-ins used in the front of the house or in view of guests.

Less expensive models typically have stainless doors at the very least, but anodized or painted aluminum sides, backs, tops and bottoms. In a few cases, makers might even use galvanized steel for some panels. Mid-range models are more likely to have stainless sides as well as doors, but the sides’ appearance won’t matter if your unit is wedged between other equipment or placed against a wall—even if you plan to use it in the front of the house.

Interior. Interior options are more varied, ranging from molded ABS plastic liners to anodized aluminum to a combination of aluminum and stainless to all stainless. Which you choose has a lot to do with what you plan to store inside the box.

Plastic liners are your least expensive option, and they tend to be durable and easy to clean. However, if they crack, dirt and food acids can get to the metal underneath and corrode your reach-in from the inside out. And cracked liners aren’t easy to replace.

Anodized aluminum is somewhat more expensive, but is more durable than plastic. Over time, however, it can pit and corrode if you’re putting a lot of raw foods into the box or if the food stored inside is prone to spills.

When combining anodized aluminum with stainless, manufacturers usually clad interior sides with aluminum and reserve stainless for the floor and inside of the door. The stainless resists spills better, and the combination is a less expensive alternative than using all stainless.

An all-stainless interior offers the best durability, long life, cleanability and attractive appearance. You might consider the extra expense worthwhile, especially if guests will see or use the reach-in.

Doors. You have even more choices when it comes to doors. Your first decision is whether to use solid or glass. Glass makes an excellent choice when you want to merchandise products—sandwiches, salads, beverages, desserts, etc.—in the front of the house. Glass isn’t always a good choice for the back of the house because it tends to get broken more easily. Solid doors are your best choice there.

Doors can be hinged on either side, and some are field-reversible so you can make the decision after you’ve placed the reach-in in the right location. As a solution for tight spots, either in the front or back of the house, many manufacturers offer sliding doors. You can also spec half-size doors (more often used on dual-temp reach-ins).


Hardware alone may be enough reason to spec one model or even one manufacturer’s reach-ins over another. If not, there still may be some specific features you want to look for.

Hinges. You’ll find the two most common hinge types are edge-mount hinges and top-and-bottom pin hinges. Edge-mount hinges make door removal easier for cleaning if necessary. Some hinges also have a plastic collar that can slowly wear out over time. If the collar is not replaced, metal-on-metal contact can destroy the hinges.

Both types typically are designed with doorstops that allow doors to open either 90° or 120°. If employees are rough on equipment—for example, they’ll force doors open against the stops—edge-mount hinges will be more likely to stress and tear the sheet metal to which they’re attached. Otherwise, edge-mount hinges are equally as strong as top-and-bottom pin hinges, and the choice may come down to a matter of aesthetics.

Manufacturers also generally employ one of two methods for holding doors open and ensuring they close themselves—cam lifts and torsion springs. Torsion springs can wear out or lose their tension and may need replacing over the life of the box. Cam lifts, on the other hand, operate using gravity.

Handles. You’ll see three types of handles on solid door reach-ins—horizontal, vertical and recessed. Vertically mounted handles are the easiest to grasp and open. However, if your reach-in is in a narrow aisle or employees move lots of carts or other large objects past it, the handles can get in the way, damaging carts or getting damaged themselves.

In these situations, you may want to consider horizontal handles. Perhaps best in any situation are recessed handles. They don’t protrude and usually have vertical handholds, making them easy to grasp.

Gaskets. Magnetic gaskets help maintain a good seal to keep cold air in. Insist on press-in-place gaskets that don’t require tools for replacement. Most gaskets have an accordion fold that helps them keep a proper seal. The folds must be kept clean, but over time a gasket can crack or break from the repeated expansion/contraction required to clean it. One manufacturer now makes gaskets with more of a curve instead of a fold that’s easier to keep clean and less likely to wear as quickly.

Shelves. Here again, you have a choice of materials ranging from less to more expensive. Key factors that can help you determine which materials to spec include how much weight and what type of product you plan to load on them.

Least expensive are coated wire shelves. The coating is typically epoxy or a rubberized plastic. This type of shelf is fine for storing packaged foods (cans, bottles, etc.) or for use in reach-ins that won’t get too much wear and tear.

A step above in terms of cost and appearance are chrome-plated wire shelves. Again, these are fine for storing packaged foods, but if subjected to lots of wear and tear, such as sliding heavy pans in and out, the chrome finish can grind away, letting the metal beneath corrode.

Stainless wire shelves are probably best for the back of the house where they can withstand the rough treatment and exposure to acidic foods. Over time, the acidity in stored foods can corrode cheaper materials.

Take a look at how the shelves are supported and adjusted, too. Each manufacturer has its own system, but typical systems involve vertical supports, screw-in stud supports or clips. The manufacturer might offer these support devices in the same choice of materials as the shelving. Use the same selection criteria: lighter shelf supports for lightweight packaged foods and heavier duty stainless for heavy loads or raw food products.

A final option offered by many makers consists of adjustable clips that hold tray slides. With this system, you can easily store sheet pans of food products, using them as shelves when necessary.

Legs and casters. On most models, you have the option of legs or casters. Choose legs if you plan to leave the reach-in in a permanent location. Legs should be made of stainless and should be adjustable to level the unit on a slightly uneven floor. Choose casters if you need to reposition the reach-in often (such as rolling a merchandising unit into the kitchen after hours or for frequent cleaning). Be sure the casters are heavy duty and that at least two can lock to hold the reach-in in place when it’s in use.

Controls And Options

At the value end, reach-ins with analog, electro-mechanical controls work just fine, but they only control temperature to within several degrees of the factory setting (usually 38°F). Some you simply plug in and forget. Mid-range models may offer a digital thermometer to give you a readout of the temperature inside the box, and some have electronic, digital temperature controls, which provide much more precise temperature readings.

At the high end, many models offer a range of electronic features that give you more control over the reach-in and its performance. Depending on the model, following are some of the features now available:

Temperature control. Set precise temperatures anywhere between 28°F and 40°F for specific products, colder for fresh meat or poultry and warmer for more delicate items.

Load interrupt. A door-activated switch automatically turns off the evaporator fan (or reduces it to a lower speed) when employees are loading or unloading the reach-in. This prevents excess cold air from escaping the cabinet.

Cool mode. Some models offer a manual override that allows you to switch the compressor to “constant on” to bring reach-in temperatures down quickly after the unit has been loaded. Other models have a two-speed evaporator fan operated by a manual switch to speed cooling.

Energy-saving mode. Conversely, some models have an automatic energy-saving mode that kicks in when the reach-in hasn’t been opened for four hours.

Adjustable defrost. You can program select defrost times on a few models between three and 12 hours. (This feature uses an electric heater defrost cycle instead of hot gas.)

Monitors/alarms. Microprocessor controls offer the ability to monitor reach-in performance and alert employees when something isn’t right. These include audio and/or visual warnings for door ajar, high- and low-temperature limits, dirty condenser, dirty air filter, evaporator coil failure or freeze-up, discharge line failure and power interruption.

Some models also have communications capabilities, allowing you to connect the reach-in with a back-office computer to monitor performance.

HACCP tracking. Several models also have a memory function to retain data for HACCP purposes, including any alarm events. Some offer a USB port for downloading up to a year’s worth of data. Others can be directly connected to a network.

Finally, as with any piece of equipment, take a look at warranties, service networks and parts availability offered with the reach-in models you’re interested in. Any of those factors might sway your decision one way or another.

Whether you need an inexpensive box in which to store food in the back of the house, an attractive merchandising unit for grab-and-go in the front of the house or a workhorse next to the cook line, there’s a reach-in out there with your operation’s name on it.

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